A Native Plant with a Split Personality

From my perspective on the Arroyo Mocho bike trail, looking across the arroyo toward the dry brown field cluttered with debris, litter, non-native perennial pepper weed and fennel, I spot a clump of healthy green leaves dotted with dramatic white trumpet-shaped blossoms. I know right away it is jimsonweed (Datura sp.) because hot midsummer days and disturbed ground are its season. It’s a member of the family Solanaceae, which includes potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and petunias … but also tobacco and deadly nightshade! A California native plant with a Jekyll and Hyde personality!

So, is the individual in the above photo a Jekyll or a Hyde? That depends. Mary Ann, our competent plant ID associate, identified it as Datura stramonium. This species is also known as “true Datura” and is actually native to Mexico. But it closely resembles an almost identical species, D. wrightii, which is native to California. Both are widely established in the U.S.

What’s In a Name?
For anyone who is interested, the generic name Datura is taken from the Sanskrit dhatūra, meaning thorn-apple (because of the spiny covering of the fruit). The origin of stramonium is unknown, but the name Stramonia was used in the 17th century for various Datura species.[12]
The name “jimsonweed” is derived from the town of Jamestown, Virginia, where English soldiers consumed the plant while attempting to suppress Bacon’s Rebellion (1675-76). (They spent 11 days in altered mental states, for reasons which will be evident below.)
The species name “wrightii” honors Charles Wright (1811-85), an American botanist and railroad surveyor who collected plants for his colleague Harvard botanist Asa Gray.

The Split Personality of Jimsonweed
Altho Datura is sometimes planted in gardens as an attraction, we do not feature it at the Granada Native Garden. But if you are fortunate to come across it in the wild, examine it with caution. The beauty and symmetry of the blossoms, pure white with margins often tinted lavender, are tempting. They are sweetly scented and usually open in evening in order to attract nocturnal pollinating hawkmoths, or on cloudy days or in the shade.  Soon after the blossoms open, they release a plume of carbon dioxide, which signals when nectar is most abundant, an invitation to the hawkmoths. (Cited by Emily Underwood in “Flora”, the publication of the California Native Plant Society.)  The oval-shaped fruit has a thorny covering.

But the crushed leaves and stems stain your hands yellow and possess an unpleasant smell. More importantly, all parts of the plant are deadly poisonous, and its toxic compounds reportedly can be absorbed thru skin! Extracts from this plant are narcotic, hallucinogenic, and, if ingested, potentially lethal. All parts of the plant contain dangerous levels of the psychoactive alkaloids atropine, hyoscyamine, and scopolamine. The risk of fatal overdose is high among uninformed users, and many hospitalizations occur among recreational users who ingest the plant for its psychoactive effects. The amount of toxins varies widely from plant to plant.

Its Importance to Indigenous Cultures
Nonetheless, Native Americans have valued Datura since before recorded history for its vision-inducing and pain-killing properties. The narcotic properties of species have long been known, and it once figured importantly in religious ceremonies in the Southwest “to establish contact with a supernatural guardian who would provide protection, special skill, and a personal talisman; for clairvoyance, such as contacting the dead, finding lost objects, seeing the future, or seeing the true nature of people; and to cure the effects of injury, evil omens or breaches of taboo, and obtain immunity from danger.” (quotation from Chumash Ethnobotany, by Jan Timbrook). In a Tubatulabal myth, jimson weed was once a man who, when he died, told the people to dig his roots if they were in need of help. (Cited by M. Kat Anderson in Tending the Wild ).

However, as far as we know, indigenous peoples were quite aware that jimson weed was potentially lethal, and used it for religious purposes, and were careful to gauge the correct dosage. I’m not aware of any records of overdoses among them, unlike the current fad to use such substances solely for recreational purposes.

Quote for the Occasion
“Last Christmas somebody gave me a whole Jimson weed – the root must have weighed two pounds; enough for a year – but I ate the whole thing in about twenty minutes. Luckily, I vomited most of it right back up. But even so, I went blind for three days. I couldn’t even walk! My whole body turned to wax. I was such a mess that they had to haul me back to the ranch house in a wheelbarrow. They said I was trying to talk, but I sounded like a raccoon.”
– Hunter S. Thompson, in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, Part 2, chapter 5, recounted by the character Dr. Gonzo.

Guided Tours of the Granada Native Garden Are Available                                                   Are you interested in seeing some of the plants that are described in this Newsletter or in past issues?  One or more staff of the GNG are routinely on duty at the Garden on Mondays and Thursdays, roughly between 10:00 AM and 12:00 noon.  But it isn’t very hard to arrange a guided visit at other times.  If you are interested in scheduling a visit, just email Jim at  JIMatGNG@gmail.com .  Or if you have any questions or inquiries, please email Jim at the same address! Directions to the Garden and information about volunteering there can be found by clicking one of the buttons at the top of the first page of this Newsletter.